New Mexico School Update

From the Editor: For some time now we have been following the situation at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped (NMSVH). (See the October, 1996, issue of the Braille Monitor for details.) In May of this year the U.S. Justice Department finally released its report on the school. It makes discouraging, if not distressing, reading. In recent months some hopeful signs have appeared. The Board of Regents is now radically different from the one that looked the other way when the worst of the abuses were taking place. Also, beginning with the current academic year, Dr. Nell Carney, the former Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, has taken over as superintendent at NMSVH. All this is good news, but the new broom has a lot to sweep away. The following summary of the Justice Department's report appeared in the June 24, 1998, edition of the Albuquerque Journal. Here it is:

Feds Fault New Mexico School for Blind
Students Not Taught Braille, Cane Use

by Rene Romo

The state's primary school for the blind has failed to teach most of its students how to read Braille and walk with a cane and lacks adequate mental health services, according to a report issued recently by the U.S. Justice Department.

The report is the first in-depth, independent analysis of the Alamogordo school's teaching performance and provides "a sad commentary on what's been going on over the last twenty years," said Joe Salazar, vice president of the Board of Regents for the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped.

Salazar and Board of Regents president James Salas acknowledged the school had problems but declined to release details of planned corrective measures.

They said the state Attorney General's Office, representing the school, sent a proposal to the Justice Department on June 15 outlining a plan to remedy the alleged violations of students' statutorily guaranteed rights.

"Every area they pointed out where we were weak, we are going to correct," Salazar said.

A Justice Department spokesman was unable to respond Tuesday to questions about the report.

The Justice Department investigation stemmed from a 1996 civil suit filed against the school's regents and employees by sixteen former students who alleged acts of physical and sexual abuse by school staff and other students between 1973 and 1996.

The students, who charged school administrators ignored complaints and failed to protect students, settled their suit in January. Terms of the settlement have not been released.

According to the Justice investigation carried out by the Civil Rights Division, only twelve of the sixty-five to seventy students attending the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped during the 1996-97 academic year could read Braille. Sixteen students could not read at all.

The school, at the time of an April, 1997, tour, had only a part-time Braille teacher, and "many of the other classroom teachers appear to consider Braille too difficult for their students," who are of average or above average intelligence, the report states.

The majority of students were taught to read print, often standard-size print, the report states. Those students include legally blind students and those with degenerative eye disease and who will eventually lose most or all of their sight.

Of the twelve students said to read Braille, many who are partially sighted read Braille with their eyes instead of using their fingertips to decipher the raised printed code.

The report said it was "unacceptable" that some visually impaired students had to wait months to receive replacements when they lost or damaged their eyeglasses.

The school also failed to ensure that able-bodied students were proficient in the use of a cane, the report states. Some students told investigators they avoided using canes to avoid public embarrassment. But the Justice report said the school should "address such emotional and social concerns directly, rather than permitting students to literally bump around in a misplaced effort to conceal their disability."

Arthur Schreiber, President of the New Mexico chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, a private advocacy group, said teaching Braille and other independent living skills such as walking with a cane are the backbone of specialized instruction for the blind.

"I think they (NMSVH) are doing horribly," Schreiber said.

"They certainly have a big job in front of them."

Albuquerque attorney Bruce Pasternack, who represented the sixteen plaintiffs in the civil suit against the school, said the Justice Department investigation confirmed his clients' complaints of a lack of protection and educational deficiencies:

"The government corroborated that."

The investigation, however, did not deal with allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

Despite the lawsuit, the school still had an inadequate abuse-reporting system in place in late 1997, according to the Justice Department. School policy required employees to report suspected abuse, but there was no standard reporting form. And there was no mechanism for students or parents to report abuse or neglect, the report states.

"Although our evaluation revealed that the school has significant strengths on which to build, it revealed violations of students' constitutional and federal statutory rights," said the report, signed by Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division.

The report also states the school lacked adequate mental health resources, mainly because mental health counseling services are provided by unlicensed or unqualified staff.

In one case a student's self-mutilation behavior was addressed not with treatment but a warning he would be punished if the behavior continued. In another case a boy with a history of suicidal gestures was turned down when he requested more than monthly counseling sessions.

Schreiber said the report is especially galling since the school, a land-grant institution, is one of the best endowed institutions for the blind in the country.

The school had an annual budget of more than $7 million in 1997, spending the equivalent of $105,000 for each of the seventy students living on campus.

At the time of the April, 1997, tour of the campus, the school employed 160 full- and part-time staff members, of whom "only twenty-one provided education and habilitation services directly to students," the report said.

Former student Jennifer Switzer-Hensley, a 1977 graduate of the Alomogordo school, said she was not surprised by the report. She didn't learn Braille or how to use a cane until two years ago through a state Commission for the Blind service.

"If you had any sight at all, we weren't taught mobility, even if your condition would deteriorate," Switzer-Hensley said.